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Turkmenistan: Rumors Of Niyazov's Ill Health Symptomatic Of A Closed Society

In a closed society like that in Turkmenistan, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press simply do not exist, rumors hold great weight. News of major events in the country are spread first in the form of hearsay. It's only later that the truth becomes known. The latest rumors circulating in Turkmenistan claim that President Saparmurat Niyazov's health is deteriorating. These stories -- though unconfirmed -- are nevertheless provoking debate in the country about succession and the political situation in a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan.

Prague, 11 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's State Information Service recently interviewed German cardiologist Hans Meisner and some of his colleagues about the health of President Niyazov. The German doctors are currently visiting Ashgabat.

In the story, broadcast by state media throughout the country, the German doctors said Niyazov is in excellent health. But in a society in which people have learned to believe the opposite of what the state media broadcast, the interview is being interpreted as an indication of the deterioration of Niyazov's health.

There is solid ground for such speculation.

The 62-year-old Niyazov has been battling heart and blood-circulation problems since the early 1990s. In November 1994, Niyazov had a blood clot removed from his leg by doctors at a hospital in Texas. In September 1997 in Munich, Meisner himself performed coronary-bypass surgery on Niyazov.

Exiled opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov was Niyazov's foreign minister in 1997 and spent time with the Turkmen president during his convalescence. In an interview with RFE/RL, Shikhmuradov recalled Niyazov's condition both before and after the surgery.

"At the moment of his surgery, blood circulation didn't exceed 26 percent of his heart function. After the bypass surgery, the process was restored, but doctors warned him that he should keep a strict diet and follow medical prescriptions. Of course, he followed none of them. Quite the opposite. He continued to drink -- in particular, cognac, which is his regular drink. This has completely ruined the results of the surgery. Starting in 1998, German doctors have regularly been warning that his health condition was degrading," Shikhmuradov said.

During this time, however, the Turkmen public only heard official statements that said Niyazov is in excellent health.

Shikhmuradov said it has lately become harder to hide what he believes is the real situation of Niyazov's health. He said two of Niyazov's cabinet meetings were broadcast on state television this week but that it was not made clear to viewers that the meetings were not being held in their usual location.

"There are obvious signs of serious problems because he held his two latest cabinet meetings at his residence. Foreigners or Turkmens who are not aware of the inner details may not catch it and may think that he is at the office. But [these meetings were held in] the interior of the suburban presidential residence," Shikhmuradov said.

The stories now circulating in Ashgabat -- all unconfirmed -- say that Niyazov's doctors recommend that he undergo a rare second bypass surgery, and that Niyazov is hesitant to travel abroad again for the procedure.

David Ioseleane is chief cardiologist at Moscow's Central Cardiology Center and has performed dozens of such surgeries. He described the situation in which a second bypass operation would be needed: "I think if a second bypass surgery is required, it means [Niyazov] has trouble. First, we should think that the implanted bypass grafts are blocked. This is because of diabetes [in Niyazov's case]. Plus, it might be the inadequate reaction of the body to the [post-surgery] treatment."

Steve Sabol is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Turkmenistan. Sabol said that, if the reports are true, Niyazov's reluctance to leave the country could be due to his fear of a coup during his absence.

In Sabol's opinion, Niyazov's recent government reshuffling could have added to this fear.

"[Niyazov] might be unknowingly, unintentionally, creating or strengthening any internal opposition through these shuffles. So it creates a rather erratic and unstable situation in Turkmenistan. The fear of a coup is probably very real and also difficult to assess," Sabol said.

Niyazov sacked hundreds of officials in September in the country's security and finance agencies, including the chairman of the National Security Committee and the chief of the Central Bank. He also sent dozens of once-close associates to jail for alleged abuses and corruption.

Talk of Niyazov's health has also sparked discussion about what will happen after Niyazov is no longer president -- whether that happens this year, next year, or far into the future.

Filip Noubel, a senior Central Asian analyst for the International Crisis Group, said a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan looks as bleak as the current scene.

"The biggest problem is that you have a complete lack of structures -- no state structures. [Niyazov] has confiscated all political and economic power. The country is left alone. When he is not there, there is no one to replace him. So what happens next is a very difficult question," Noubel said.

Sabol said it is difficult to envision a succession scenario in a country without proper institutional structures: "The succession mechanism is not very well-defined [in Turkmenistan]. And even if it was, I am sure, there will be some jockeying for power behind the scenes. The system, I don't think, would respect any constitutional limits on a power change. While they [Turkmens] may not get an individual who is as capricious or as erratic as [Niyazov], I do think his being removed -- either physically or mentally -- from power is going to create a very unstable environment for Turkmenistan."

But opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov said life in a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan can't be any worse -- that the country under Niyazov's rule has hit rock bottom. He said he strongly believes the Turkmen people are ready to create a better life for themselves if given the chance.

Turkmenistan is preparing to celebrate its 11th Independence Day on 27 October. In the past, Niyazov has used the occasion to appear in public and address the nation. Whether or not Niyazov decides to appear before his people this year may shed some light on the real situation in Ashgabat.